Home For The Holidays

I’ve been so proud of myself for growing up

and shedding this suburban scenery for more subtle forms of snobbery.

I the butterfly, you the broken cocoon. I the artist, you the coloring page.

I’ve proudly colored outside your lines.

But wintery tradition brings me back behind that picket fence

and I’ll whisper that I’m humbled by this homeyness.

I the weary traveler, you the cozy inn. I the prodigal, you the open arms.

This town pulls on my compasses.

 

On the way to that one coffee shop and who can think of anything else but that

the corner of 17th and Juniper is nothing if not the time I turned around to hear him out and welcome home another brother in the front of that movie-making robot

and that dirty donut shop is nothing if not the place I realized they were gone forever, interpreting the news of a shrinking world with coconut crumbs ignored

and the sidewalk across from Filippi’s is nothing if not the stage of my debut and the meeting of my first embodied inspiration at my entrance to the underworld

and that drive down the boulevard from Sunset to Grand is nothing if not the highway of my heart and the cornerstone of my conscience in every immanent sense.

The truth is that you made my good deeds good.

worship & sacrifice

Every Sunday, Christians around the world gather together to celebrate and spiritually absorb the sacrifice that Christ made in the gospel, in his incarnation and crucifixion. We tear bread and pour wine into cups as a sacred ritual of remembrance and receiving of Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, the elements of the sacrifice which impart his indestructible life to us. We gather and remember so that we may worship the God who so loved, that he gave. In our Christian worship, we imitate Christ’s great sacrifice and offer ourselves back to God.

Before Christ, the purpose of the old covenant sacrificial system was twofold. The dead animals were given to atone as well as to worship. The different types of sacrifices had different names and different rules. Burnt offerings and sin offerings saved the sacrificer’s life on the principle of substitution, and cleansed the person’s moral conscience, while thanksgiving and freewill offerings were just that: optional expressions of gratitude and love to God.

Once, in his old age, David sought to build an altar to God and sacrifice animals on it, using another man’s nearby property to do so. The man offered David the use of his land, animals, and materials for free. By this point in his life, however, David understood, better than most of us, the stuff of which the worship of God consists. He responded, “No, but I will buy it from you at a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).

The entire Mosaic religious system was principled on sacrifice. But then, so is religion everywhere. Deep in human nature exists an urging to sacrifice to God. Monks flagellating, Brahmans fasting, pagans cutting, Jews and Muslims slaughtering livestock. Religion tends to focus and codify this urging, but it goes deeper than religious codes. It’s more universal.

The dualistic urge to atone–to cover our shame and make good on our broken promises–and worshipfully love something greater than ourselves through sacrifice drives modern people along an unending pursuit of achievement and conformity (which gets billed as nonconforming originality, of course). Even without a demanding deity in the equation, we have created an urbanized version of law-keeping to what we imagine to be The Ultimate, accompanied by the required sacrifice of our actual, uninformed desires. Corporate ladder climbers, hipsters, gangsters, junior highers, moms. Everybody does it.

Now, back to Jesus. He gave up the riches of divinity for the poverty of humanity. He gave up his body to be smashed and disfigured by human cruelty. He gave up his self to be oppressed by the full load of human guilt and shame and to be ignited and consumed by the divine curse. In short, Jesus Christ made The Great Sacrifice to God. As with the old covenant animals, his death was both atoning and worshipful.

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2

There it is. Christ’s death was a “fragrant offering” (worship) and it was “for us” (atonement). He worshiped his Father by obeying his will to the point of death, and he atoned for the sins of his people by suffering the consequence of their evil in their place and by offering a sacrifice of infinite positive worth to God on their behalf.

We celebrate Jesus’ death today because it canceled, once for all time, the need for us to sacrifice for atonement’s sake. The blood of Christ washes away all sin, and it is finished. We add nothing more to obtain forgiveness and vindication: not livestock corpses, not self-denial or self-harm, not the performance of good deeds, not conformity to a supposed standard of success. Our deep longing for absolution is at last profoundly satisfied. It’s done. Jesus did it for us.

The story about David remains, as does the worshipful aspect of the crucifixion. The other side of our drive to sacrifice, we find, is valid in Christ. Not to atone, but to worship. Worship to the God who so loved that he gave, it turns out, also looks like giving.

  • It is the sacrifice of our pride and self-justification, and the offering up of our broken hearts (Psalm 51:17).
  • It is the sacrifice of our money and possessions, given to spread God’s gospel among humanity (Philippians 4:18).
  • It is the sacrifice of our self-absorption and boasting, exchanged for talk of God and verbal praise of him (Hebrews 13:15).
  • It is the sacrifice of our time and energy spent in self-service, exchanged for the service of other human beings (Hebrews 13:16).

Ultimately we discover that our worship’s substance is the sacrifice of our selves.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1

David was right. There is no worship without sacrifice. The remarkable thing is that we never give to God something we didn’t firstly receive as a gift from him (1 Corinthians 4:7). We have nothing of our own to offer. Truthfully, all we ever bring to God is our need.

Yet he asks us to give–to give ourselves–anyway. It fulfills our deep urge to worship, and to do so by giving and sacrificing. It is the definition of love.

At the end of it all, we find that nothing is so truly ours as when we have given it completely to God.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” -Jim Elliot, 20th century Christian martyr

“I never made a sacrifice.” -Hudson Taylor, 19th century missionary to China

thanksgiving for beggars

Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.
Beggars by Thrice

To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Christmas and Easter commemorate more important events – the most important events of all – but they have been almost completely secularized and commercialized in this culture. Celebrating them in honest and faithful ways can be difficult. Thanksgiving is, perhaps, in this sense, the “purest” holy-day. It is simple and the idea behind it is beautiful: a day set aside expressly for purpose of counting one’s blessings and expressing gratitude (to God) for life and the good things in it.

In the Christian understanding of the universe, life, breath, and everything exist only because God continues to will it so. Jesus is, now, upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). We, as creatures, create and sustain nothing. Whatever we have, we have received. The truth of our humble state is total and absolute dependence on the creation and sustenance of God – whether we acknowledge this or not. “We are beggars all.”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. John 3:27

Christians understand this, and it is for expressly this reason that they understand sin as being so heinous. The more one has received, the more wicked one’s ingratitude and wastefulness becomes.

We are prone to live out of a deeply felt sense of entitlement, not gratitude – and none more so than my generation of American young people. We grew up, practically speaking, wealthier than any other generation that has ever lived, with an almost incredible level of affluence and ease of living that has been handed to us by the sweat of our grandparents and parents. We are more educated and more childish than every generation preceding us. We feel fervently entitled to happiness. Ridiculously so.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Gratitude looks at the gifts of God in awe and humility and praise. Entitlement feels constantly deprived and resents every perceived lack, meanwhile ignoring the grace in every undeserved gift. Which one do you live by more often?

Thanksgiving for the Christian is truly sweet. We are privileged in that we know exactly who it is we are thanking (how does an atheist celebrate this holiday?). We personally know the Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17). We alone can say, “Thank you, Father – Abba – Papa – Daddy.”

The privilege of our relationship with God and our status in his eyes, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, which removes our sin as far as east is from west and brings us as close to the Father as the Son is to him, is of course the greatest grace of all. It is absurd that entitlement-minded sinners can call a holy God “Daddy.” Yet, it is so, because Jesus suffered the cross and tore the curtain in two. The thing for us to do, therefore, is pray, write songs and poems, make spontaneous art, lift our voices, and thank God.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of St. Francis that Francis saw the world upside down. Heavy palaces and cathedrals, usually thought of as being more firmly rooted on the earth and more permanent than anything else, are instead most in danger of falling off completely, precisely because of their weight. The mere fact that God continues to hold the thread by which our world dangles moved Francis to a profound sense of gratitude and dependence which lasted his entire life.

Thanksgiving really is a way of life,  a way to see the world. It is a habit of prayer. To always pray “with thanksgiving,” following Paul’s commands in Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 4:2, changes how you process life. It reverses entitlement and transforms it into grateful humility, which is in every way a more joyful place to be. To stay thankful when loss threatens saves the soul from total despair because to stay thankful is to remain steadily at rest in the immeasurable grace of God. And – thankfully – thanksgiving keeps you on speaking terms with God, no matter what.

Jesus told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV). The logical successor of gratitude is generosity, since whatever you have, you too have received as a gift. Beggars become givers in God’s kingdom.

To close I’ll share with you all I poem I love that repeatedly stirs me to gratitude towards God, even in the face of humanity’s violence and destruction.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877, discovered here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.